My Name is Mary Sutter
(2010) is a New York Times
bestselling work of historical fiction by Robin Oliviera. The first book in the Mary Sutter
duology, it features a young woman who tries to become a surgeon during the American Civil War. It received the 2011 Michael Shaara Prize for Civil War Fiction. Oliviera is a registered nurse who specializes in critical care and bone marrow transplants. She brings her medical expertise to her work. My Name is Mary Sutter
is her second book.
Protagonist Mary Sutter, who works as a midwife, is building a solid reputation for herself. However, she has bigger dreams than being a midwife. For as long as she can remember, Mary has wanted to be a surgeon. She knows that women aren’t expected to become surgeons but that is what makes the dream exciting to her.
Privately, Mary is also nursing a recent heartbreak. Her twin sister, Jenny, married the man Mary loves. Mary never told Jenny the truth about her feelings for the man and so, she knows she can’t be angry. When Jenny becomes pregnant with her first child, all Jenny can think about is how wonderful it will be to have Mary deliver it. Mary, on the other hand, has other plans.
Mary approaches James Blevens, a surgeon in Albany. Knowing he has an impressive surgical reputation, she wants to work as his apprentice. James, however, doesn’t want to work with her. He says no women have ever been admitted to medical school in the U.S., and they’re not about to start admitting women now. Despite Mary’s pleas, James turns her away.
With no romantic prospects, a sister who is married to the man she adores, and her career at a standstill, Mary decides there is only one thing she can do—run away. Men around the country fighting in the Civil War are in desperate need of aid. If Mary can find work on the battlefield, she knows that men will start taking her seriously. The first place Mary looks for work is in Washington, D.C., because she knows that the capital is her best chance of finding a lead.
Mary sets off for Washington, despite her family’s protests. Her mother is disappointed that she is leaving Jenny behind without a midwife, and she has already lost her son—Mary’s brother—to the Civil War. Mary, however, knows that she has a rare talent and it is being wasted in Albany. She needs someone to give her a chance.
Aboard the train, Mary finds a circular left behind by Dorothea Dix. Dorothea is the Female Superintendent of Army Nurses. With casualty numbers rising, Dorothea and others like her need more nurses on the front lines, working in the hospital wards and tending to the wounded. Mary can’t wait to meet Dorothea, and she goes straight to her home when she gets off the train.
However, Mary’s joy is short-lived. While Dorothea admires Mary’s enthusiasm, she tells Mary that she is very young and won’t be able to handle the horrors of a wartime hospital. Angry and dejected, Mary doesn’t let this disappointment deter her. Instead, she approaches Dr. Stipp, a surgeon struggling under his endless workload; he could use an extra set of hands.
Although Dr. Stipp loathes having a female assistant, he quickly finds that Mary is the perfect person for the job. She is eager to learn, personable, and talented. She puts patients at ease, and she isn’t squeamish. Realizing that women are just as capable as men when it comes to surgery, Dr. Stipp teaches Mary everything he knows. From limb removal to infection treatment, Mary dabbles in everything.
Dr. Stipp becomes a father figure to Mary. He introduces her to President Abraham Lincoln, who is inspired by her fearless tenacity and castiron stomach. With Dr. Stipp’s help, Mary convinces the President to spare more aid for medical supplies. The more soldiers they save, Mary explains, the more soldiers they will have out on the battlefield again. The president heeds her plea, directing extra resources into medical care.
Meanwhile, back in Albany, Jenny has her baby. The labor doesn’t go well, and it ends tragically for Jenny. Mary feels guilty that, although she is saving many lives, she could not save her own family. When news of her brother’s death arrives from an army camp, she finally understands that even the most skilled and enthusiastic surgeon cannot save everyone. All she can do to make a difference is to save whomever she can.
In the background, another young doctor falls in love with Mary. Her resilience, her talent, and her bravery inspire him, and he quickly adores her. Mary understands that she made the right decision when she left Albany behind to take a chance on the wider world. Mary’s story paves the way for the many female medics who come after her.